Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence

34964841I like talking to people, but I unfortunately possess the unsociable qualities of both shyness and introversion. The two don’t always go together, but if you have them both, they do tend to feed on one another.

That means it takes A LOT of energy for me to engage, no matter how enjoyable I usually find it. After a social interaction, I’m always glad to have connected with other people. It just takes a lot of chutzpah on my part to get out there.

That’s why I was attracted to Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence by Amy Alkon. At first, I ignored this book because I’m getting kind of impatient with the whole using-a-swear-word-in-a-title trend. Not because I’m against swearing, but because I just think this concept is a bit overused and at least some of the time, it seems like a ploy to get millenials to buy books.

All that aside, Unf*ckology is billed as a “science-help” book, which appealed to me. And I ended up enjoying it. Here are a few things I learned:

“Fake it ’til you make it,” a strategy that has pretty much gotten me through life thus far, is a methodology backed by science. (Validation!!) Impersonating a confident person you admire, paired with practicing body language that conveys confidence (walking tall with your head up, for example), is an especially potent combo. These behaviors can actually convince your brain that you are, in fact, confident.

That idea stems from the theory of “embodied cognition,” which posits that the way we think is influenced by other systems in the body than just the brain. From wikipedia: “the features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.”

And, as Alkon puts in from a self-esteem perspective: “By consistently changing how you behave (down to how you move, breathe, and carry yourself), you can transform how you feel about yourself, how other people see and treat you, and who you are.”

Alkon explains a few other related concepts, citing the studies that back them, and the last part of the book is a sort of “how-to” manual mostly based on exposure therapy. Essentially, if you are afraid of spiders, you need to be exposed to spiders, feel the intensity of your fear, and then notice when being near a spider doesn’t kill you. That’s a very nutshell example, but I’m giving you the gist. Alkon lays out some ideas for exposure to anxiety-inducing social situations and guides you through the process.

As someone who’s fairly educated about social anxiety, I didn’t read a whole lot that was new here, per se, but I liked that she gave us the science and then told us how to apply it at the end (science→help). I’ll definitely be trying some of the exposure techniques. And you better believe I’m gonna’ keep faking it ’til I make it. It’s science!

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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, Kids books, What Shannon Read

Black Beauty

BBI thought I’d read a nice animal story after spending a delightful couple of days with The Secret Garden, you know, since I was in the mood for a classic children’s book. So I picked up Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and guys, I WAS NOT PREPARED FOR THIS.

I now know the particular effects of the mistreatment of horses, including but not limited to:

  • Forcing a bit into a horse’s mouth rather than coaxing the horse gently
  • Whipping a horse to make it go faster
  • Taking a jump that’s too high or far for the horse
  • Not feeding a horse correctly
  • Using a check rein to force the horse’s head higher than is natural for the sake of fashion

Omg. I was telling a coworker about how unprepared I was for an animal cruelty story, which inspired her to look up the wikipedia entry for Black Beauty. This is the quote she read me:

The impact of the novel is still very much recognised today. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, Bernard Unti calls Black Beauty “the most influential anti-cruelty novel of all time.”

Geez, no one told me.

Anyway, Black Beauty is the story of a horse of the same name born in 19th-century England. The book is written in the style of an autobiography, so Black Beauty is telling his own story. From his perspective, we watch as he is sold to several different owners, witnessing mistreatment of other horses and experiencing it himself along the way. He befriends other horses and we get their back stories too.

While the content was sometimes tough for me to read (especially the part where we learn how horses are trained to wear bits and harnesses – Jesus, why do we do this?!), the tone and Black Beauty as a narrator were both fun. He sometimes comments on the things humans do that seem strange to him and, as readers, we’re in on the joke. Anthropomorphism is great for revealing human foibles and giving us a chance to laugh at ourselves as well as reflect on our mistakes and correct them—apparently Sewell’s main objective.

Black Beauty takes us through all his owners and describes the work he does as well as the conditions under which he works. He has a few kind owners and a few awful owners. But there is a happy ending. The moral of the story is that horses need kind treatment and a certain amount of freedom, just like humans.

Also, we should stand up for what’s right:

Our friend stood still for a moment, and throwing his head a little back, “Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?” “No,” said the other. “Then I’ll tell you. It is because people think only about their own business, and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, nor bring the wrongdoer to light. I never see a wicked thing like this without doing what I can, and many a master has thanked me for letting him know how his horses have been used.”

Once I accepted that this was going to be a tough read, I got into the story. But I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Side note: I’m counting this one in the children’s classic category for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, Kids books, Uncategorized, What Shannon Read

The Secret Garden

2998I always want to re-read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the spring. Watching things come alive for sad little Mary Lennox is such a delight and this time around it definitely helped me pay attention to the small signs of spring around here. I’m also cataloguing it as my re-read of a classic for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Anyway, if you don’t know the story, the book is a classic of children’s literature set in England in the early part of the 20th century. It’s the story of ten-year-old Mary Lennox, who is born and raised (and spoiled) in India. She’s raised mostly by Indian servants who bow and scrape to her and, again, she’s generally a spoiled brat.

As the book starts, a cholera epidemic wipes out her family and her servants leaving her alone in the house at the same time. Once discovered, she’s shipped to England to live at Misselthwaite, a manor in Yorkshire belonging to her uncle Archibald Craven.

Thus begins my dream life: Mary is pretty much left to her own devices. Servants wait on her and, while she’s lonely at first, she has the run of the mansion as well as the grounds. She makes a friend of Martha, the serving girl who brings her meals, and hears from her about a special garden that’s been locked up for ten years, since the death of the mistress of the house.

Some Things I Love About This Book:

  • IMG_20180405_173333298

    Spring in Northern Indiana is about crocuses and waiting…

    The change in Mary from a skinny, bratty sourpuss to a little girl experiencing the wonders of the natural world as children should. The idea is that nature is transformative: “…and after she had stared for a while she realized that if she did not go out she would have to stay in and do nothing — and so she went out. She did not know that this was the best thing she could have done, and she did not know that, when she began to walk quickly or even run along the paths and down the avenue, she was stirring her slow blood and making herself stronger by fighting with the wind which swept down from the moor. She ran only to make herself warm, and she hated the wind which rushed at her face and roared and held her back as if it were some giant she could not see. But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it.”

  • Exercise is transformative too: “Mary felt lonelier than ever when she knew she was no longer in the house . She went out into the garden as quickly as possible , and the first thing she did was to run round and round the fountain flower garden ten times . She counted the times carefully and when she had finished she felt in better spirits.”
  • And lastly, so are thoughts: One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts — just mere thoughts — are as powerful as electric batteries — as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live. So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow – faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his “creatures, ” there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

I’m leaving lots of details out, but that’s because I think you’ll enjoy reading them yourself. All the above is to say that this novel is many things for me: it’s a romp in Yorkshire; it’s about having a mansion to yourself; it’s about making friends when you are friendless and alone; and it’s about the power of nature and beauty and even your own thoughts. I loved every freakin’ minute of it.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

The House Next Door

HouseNextDoorAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m constantly on the lookout for good ghost stories and The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons has been on my list for a while. I finally got a copy from the library and read it on my recent trip to Seattle, which was kind of a weird location in which to read something by one of the doyennes of Southern lit.

The story centers on Colquitt (yep) and Walter Kennedy who live in an upper-middle class neighborhood among a group of neighbors with whom they’re very close. A little too close, frankly. Everybody in this book is an introvert’s worst nightmare. But even extroverted Colquitt, who narrates the story, begins to feel shy about the people living in the house next door, especially around the time the third couple moves in. At that point, anyone would be gun-shy.

The first couple, Pie (lol) and Buddy Harralson, actually build the house next door with money from Pie’s father. They’re newlyweds who bring by everyone in their sphere to meet the Kennedy’s, including the home’s architect, Kim Dougherty, who becomes a good friend.

Turns out Kim and the Harralsons are building a contemporary-style home in an old, established neighborhood, which ends up working out beautifully because of the way the light-filled home works within its forest-y surroundings. Unfortunately, the Harralsons don’t live in it long as things start to go wrong while the house is being built.

Haunted house fans will recognize the telltale signs:

  • Small animals wind up dead (like, their remains are viciously decimated) including the Harralsons’ obnoxious new puppy.  😦
  • Pie, who’s pregnant, falls on the site and loses the baby.
  • The architect becomes more and more consumed with the house, which takes up all his time and energy, to the detriment of his talent and general architect mojo (obsession is a key element in haunted house stories).

Things go terribly and irreparably wrong at the Harralsons’ housewarming party. And in the end, things go totally wrong for all three families that live in the house. It turns out, the house preys on the families’ weaknesses to wreak havoc on their minds and in their relationships. It even starts to work on the closest neighbors, including the Kennedys and anyone who spends too much time there.

That said, none of the scenes gave me that particular don’t-wanna-get-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-to-pee thrill I’m always looking for. Nothing in the story was downright scary. Also, there was no explanation for why the house, a brand new build, ruined the lives of all its owners.

But, honestly, I didn’t mind. I liked Colquitt enough as a narrator and enjoyed the interactions between all the neighbors. Siddons brings you right into the world of their “set” and part of the fun was living that upper-middle-class life right along with them. An island vacation house? Where do I sign?

All in all, I’d rate the haunting a 3/5 and the book overall a 4/5 because it really suited my tastes.

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Fiction, What Ben Read

Revenger

revengerRevenger: The hype quotes on books have gotten way out of hand.

“A swashbuckling thriller,” “Packed full of adventure…The most enjoyable book Reynolds has ever written,” (ellipsis as quoted) and from the publisher “Revenger is a rocket-fueled tale of space pirates, buried treasure, and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazards and single-minded heroism…and of vengeance.”

I read Reynold’s acclaimed debut novel, Revelation Space and thought it was really cool albeit a tad ponderous. So this seemed perfect: same great real-scientist science fiction, spicy new space pirate content. And a not-so-daunting 400ish comfortably spaced pages. I’m in.

The reality was…not quite what I’d hoped.

It was slow getting started. Just when I was starting to lose patience it picked up. Things started humming along nicely, and then inexplicably started to drift again. But the action rallies in the end, building to a satisfying climax.

The plot and characters didn’t quite feel completely real. I could sometimes see the puppet strings as characters were dragged through scenes and plot points to get them where they needed to be. Somehow the book seems to both move slowly and rush through character development.

And for all the piratical hype, very few buckles were swashed. Spoiler alert:
*****Pirates appear a total of twice in the book. And it’s the same pirates both times. No other pirates even really merit discussion, let alone an appearance. There might only be one pirate ship in all of space.******
I’m picking on Reynolds here, but there have been plenty of worse books plastered with the same breathless acclaim. This was just the last straw in a long line of shameless blurb mongering.

I didn’t hate the book. I read it all the way through. The universe is intriguing, with hints of grander and darker forces than are revealed in this volume. I think I probably would have liked it more if I’d been able to take it for what it is rather than going in with the wrong expectations.

So please enjoy this new, more accurate version of the publisher’s description:

“Revenger is a tale of glorified junkyard pickers, stashes of old technology, and phantom weapons, of fairly serious danger and eventual heroism…and of vengeance.”

Final verdict:
Kinda cool if you take it for what it is. 3/5 ion drives
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Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

32191727“Narrated by the author” is one of my least favorite phrases to hear at the beginning of an audiobook. Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet was no exception. Millet’s reading was flat and she swallowed her words at the end of many sentences.

…But that didn’t keep me from listening to this book and I feel like that says something.

This is the first of Millet’s novels that I’ve read and I had no idea how prolific she was until I started looking at her body of work. Millet is a writer’s writer, but lucky for us, she also knows how to move narration along toward a satisfying ending.

In this novel, in particular, we get the story of Anna and her precocious six-year-old daughter Lena, who live semi-permanently in a small hotel in Maine, where they’ve fled from Anna’s philandering narcissist husband Ned.

Since her baby was born, Anna has heard strange voices, which she attributes to auditory hallucination, though she’s otherwise a totally functional human being. Turns out, she’s not the only voice-hearer who’s been drawn to this Maine hotel. She and Lena get to know the protective owner, Don, as well as the other guests.

This is what drew me to the book, honestly. I was hoping for a good ghost story. I didn’t get it, but I honestly didn’t care because I felt such a sympathy for Anna. I loved that she isn’t all that concerned about her looks. She’s smart and a good mother. She’s an introvert whose daughter is an extrovert who brings other people into their orbit with her charm. I feel like I was a bit the same way when Jake was little.

Anyway, turns out Ned is running for office back in Alaska, but, to win the red state, he needs a family by his side. So, he begins to actively pursue the girls, becoming a threatening hound at Anna’s heels until, finally, he shows up one day, intent on bringing them back with him.

The threat of Ned is the main driver of the story—will he capture them or won’t he? And how? But this isn’t a straight thriller. It’s esoteric and doesn’t move as quickly as, say, a Chevy Stevens novel. But you’re also getting more literary bang for your buck.

Here’s the Slate book review if you’d like to learn more.

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Nonfiction, Uncategorized, What Ben Read

Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party

1So the guys behind a podcast called “Dinner Party Download” wrote a book titled Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party. One might assume that they are not completely impartial, and one would be absolutely correct. The anti-brunch case is argued very loosely, with the general thrust being that it is too commercial and also prone to making you lazy and day-drunk.

The perspective is hipster-ish, and slanted toward single people who enjoy having drinks (though they do make allowances for teetotalers and those blessed with progeny). If you’re not the target market, either read the book as anthropology or don’t bother. The authors know their target market and pander unashamedly.

All that aside, it was a fun read. There is something to be said for a dinner party: friends coming together for the purpose of enjoying good food, good company, and perhaps some mild hijinks. Adding a little more DIY to our socializing could be both good for camaraderie and easier on our budgets. And the book is sprinkled with enough banter, anecdotes, humor, and practical tips to keep it light and enjoyable. Underneath all their tomfoolery, the authors are earnest in their evangelization.

Also, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a twist ending that definitely made me chuckle.

Fun and funny
4/5 Mimosas

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